Will Call column: Celebrating Ruth Graves Wakefield, one smart cookie
July 5, 2016
If you haven't heard of Ruth Graves Wakefield, that's okay. I hadn't until recently, either. She was an inventor of sorts, but not the kind we usually learn about in school. Her creation didn't revolutionize warfare or communication or medicine, but it did improve our lives in a very concrete way.
She invented the chocolate-chip cookie.
Food is one of those things that, most of the time, is hard to credit to any one person in particular. We'll likely never know who decided to drink another animal's milk, much less eat it after it turned to cheese or yogurt. I suspect that many culinary inventions were a result of desperation or chance, while the more obvious combinations were likely invented independently many times.
Food founders are rarely recorded by history, and what little credit is given is usually centuries after the fact to someone who merely popularized the dish, such as George Washington Carver or John Montagu.
Wakefield, though, apparently really was the first person to think of putting little bits of chocolate in cookies. An educated woman and a dietitian by trade, she bought the Toll House Inn with her husband in 1928. Ten years later, she decided to give customers something different and created an icon.
Even those who prefer peanut butter or those odd people who think raisins enhance oatmeal must admit that the chocolate-chip cookie is king. If there's a picture next to "cookie" in a reference book, if a restaurant offers just one variety, if you ask a 4-year-old to draw one, it's probably chocolate chip. It's what you give a mouse and what Cookie Monster seems to favor.
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Marketing put to good use
While their inherent tastiness probably gets most of the credit, some goes to good marketing. Wakefield wrote a best-selling cookbook and made a deal with Nestle to spread the recipe. Their ubiquity is self-perpetuating, as the experience of eating one carries, for me at least, a strong association with the long, comfortable days of childhood. It's hard to imagine that there are people alive today who grew up before they were even invented.
Of course, the same is true of antibiotics. Seen in that light, it's easy to dismiss this all as frivolous. Still, most of us could only dream of leaving so lasting and ubiquitous a legacy.
For one thing, it belies the assertion that the United States is a big player in the global culinary scene. For another, it strikes me as a story of female empowerment even many feminists might overlook.
For most of Western history, women were given few opportunities to distinguish themselves. Those who did make the schoolbooks generally did so by breaking the rules, and many paid for it dearly — Joan of Arc and Hypatia spring to mind.
For some reason, though, we don't make a habit of celebrating women who opted to excel in the roles society dealt them. Perhaps we're afraid of reinforcing stereotypes or seeming condescending, but it's possible to swing too far in the other direction. We're not an enlightened society if we trade stigmatizing working women for looking down on stay-at-home moms. Let's celebrate creativity in all its forms.
If we encouraged edible experimentation the way we back military research, surely the world would be a happier, though probably not healthier, place.
Will Grandbois consumed several chocolate-chip cookies during the crafting of this column. He can be reached at 970-384-9105 or email@example.com